by Barbara Gregorich
I wrote the following piece for Redline: Contemporary Marxist Analysis, and it was published on their site May 1, 2019. I am reprinting the piece as it appeared, with standard English (i.e., not American) spelling.
This month marks the bicentennial of the birth of the great US poet Walt Whitman. The author of the essay below is a Chicago-based historian, novelist, essayist, poet and public speaker – and regular reader of Redline.
Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, on Long Island, New York, on May 31, 1819, in a two-storey house his father, a carpenter, built in 1816. The family roots on Long Island went back to the early 1600s, but there was a qualitative difference between Walter Whitman Senior and his son Walt on one side, and all previous generations of Whitmans on the other. Walter Whitman Sr was born in 1789, the first generation of a new nation. Walt was the second generation of Whitmans born in that new nation.
Beginnings of US literature
In that new nation literary men and women were concerned that there was yet no national literature: nothing that reflected an American outlook as opposed to a European outlook. James Fenimore Cooper was one year away from publishing his first book and four years away from publishing The Pioneers, the first of five novels that came to be called The Leatherstocking novels, considered the very first examples of literature that was reflective of the American experience, not a European one.
Edgar Allan Poe was nearly a decade away from his first publication, and even further away from his works of literary criticism, his poetry, and his short stories. Ralph Waldo Emerson would not publish his seminal essays (which included “Self-Reliance” and “Nature”) until the early 1840s. Nathaniel Hawthorne would publish his stories of the legacies of Puritanism during the 1840s, The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and The House of the Seven Gables (depicting the weight of the past upon the present) in 1851. Henry David Thoreau would move to Walden Pond on July 4, 1845. And Herman Melville would publish Moby Dick in 1851.
In short, the new nation’s first ‘national’ literature reflecting American growth, character and conflict was written during the period that Whitman was growing up. The ferment of American literature in those years, the different directions it took and the different values and outlooks it reflected, was new and exciting. It helped shape people’s interpretations of their history, their worth, their failings and their possibilities. A different kind of fermentation was taking place with social structure as utopian socialist societies sprang up everywhere, starting in 1824 and continuing strongly through the 1850s. Among these were George Rapp’s Old Economy Village; Robert Owen’s New Harmony; Adin Ballou’s Hopedale Community; Amos Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands; the Fourier-influenced Clermont Phalanx and scores of others.
When Walt was four years old, the family moved to Brooklyn due to their worsening economic situation. The young boy grew up in poverty or near-poverty. At the age of eleven he was withdrawn from formal schooling and went to work to help support his family. He worked first as an office boy and then as a printer’s apprentice, learning how to typeset and how to run a printing press – skills that would later serve him well.
Opera and oratory
In his teens Whitman learned even more about writing, printing and publishing, moving from one newspaper job to another as circumstances dictated. While living on his own in New York City he frequented the public library, joined a debating society, and published some sentimental, conventional poetry. Every chance he had, he went to the opera (using his journalist’s pass) and rode the ferry, both of which gave him great joy. The oratory skills he learned in the debating society would influence the lines of Leaves of Grass. He practised his debate topics while walking along the oceanside, and he practised lines of Shakespeare as well.
The American public was familiar with oratory, going often to hear public debates on political topics. Among the great debaters of the day was Daniel Webster, nicknamed The Great Orator. Whitman loved oratory, and its cadence and repetition would be heard in “Song of Myself,” just as in the next century it would be heard in the impassioned speeches of United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1836, at the age of seventeen Whitman returned to Long Island to live with his family, which had moved back earlier. There he worked as a teacher in 1837 and 1838, after which time he moved back to the teeming city of New York. All his life, Whitman felt at home both in the country and in the city, and he loved each, embracing the flora and fauna of rural areas as well as the back-to-back buildings, shops, and houses of the crowded city. Although he would later be influenced by Transcendentalism, he, unlike the Transcendentalists, did not see cities as unnatural. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he would write:
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at
nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses!
Journalist and editor
In New York City Whitman continued to work in all aspects of the newspaper business, from owning his own newspaper to writing articles, to typesetting them to printing them to delivering them. As judged by Annette T. Rubinstein in American Literature: Root and Flower, the articles that Whitman wrote were undistinguished and undistinguishable from what others were writing. There was nothing distinct about them: nothing that indicated the torrent of words, emotions, lists, observations, and encouragements that would burst forth in 1855.
From 1846 to 1848 Whitman was editor of the newspaper The Brooklyn Eagle, founded in 1841. While reporting daily news, The Eagle was also a strong supporter of the Democratic Party which, during the 1840s, engineered compromises with slaveholders so that slavery could be expanded in part of the nation and the strength of the slaveholders in Congress not diminished. Whitman was fired from his job as editor of The Brooklyn Eagle because he supported the Free Soil Party and the owner did not. Whitman in fact became a delegate to the founding convention of the Free Soil Party in 1848. (the FSP was a short-lived party that existed to oppose the extension of slavery into new, western territories of the USA. It was led by a former US president, Martin Van Buren.)
The Free Soil Party ran candidates in the 1848 and 1852 elections, but then disintegrated as many of its members joined the Republican Party, founded in 1854 as an anti-slavery party. The great William Lloyd Garrison, who helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and was an active supporter of and participant in the women’s rights movement, scoffed at the Free Soil Party, calling it “white man-ism” to indicate that its proponents were concerned more with allowing white men to farm without the competition of slavery than they were with abolishing slavery or fighting for equality for African-Americans.
After being fired from The Brooklyn Eagle Whitman worked as a carpenter from 1848-1854, building small houses that working people could afford, and doing various other kinds of carpentry. Around 1850 something made him decide to focus on poetry. He worked and worked on what he was trying to say and in 1855 he offered his poetry to the world in a small book (fewer than twenty poems) that could be carried in one’s pocket. This book had no title, but it did contain a now-iconic photo of Whitman wearing workman’s clothing, one hand in his pocket, one on his hip, looking out at the reader with confidence and perhaps with a challenge (see photo at top of article).
In all future editions, this book would bear the title Leaves of Grass, and its first poem was always “Song of Myself.” The book title was a double-entendre. Throughout the poems Whitman refers to grass and blades of grass. The latter represent individuals: each unique, but together with others creating a sward, a field. . . the surface of Earth. In the publishing world of the 1850s, what is today called “slush” (unwanted manuscripts that are usually poorly written) was then called “grass.” And “leaves” have always been pages. Whitman was no doubt aware that he was calling his book Pages of Poor Writing. He must have been laughing at the publishing world while doing so, because Whitman believed thoroughly and deeply, with every fibre of his being, that he was offering not dross, but gold.
The poems in Leaves of Grass are written in free verse, and although Whitman was not the first poet to write unrhymed, unmetered poetry, he is nevertheless credited as being the father of free verse because of his profound effect on poetry. Critics agree that Leaves of Grass was not just the first work of modern poetry, but also one of the best. While extolling the rural, the bucolic, the natural, and the self, it breaks with all previous poetry not only because the lines lack rhyme and metre, but also because the subject matter does not centre on (or even concern) a person of status, and because the language used is not stilted, “elevated” language (which makes some people detest poetry) as in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to a Skylark”: Hail to thee, blithe Spirit / Bird thou never wert.
Whitman himself attributed the style of these poems to the opera, stating that he could not have written them had he not immersed himself in opera. Opera, he said, freed him from the “ballad style” of poetry because it freed him from reliance on rhyme and metre. He attributed the content of the poems to the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays he read in 1854. In that year Whitman was in Brooklyn, working as a carpenter. Each morning he set out for work the same way thousands of other workers did, carrying a tin pail with his meal in it. But along with his food, Whitman always took a book, and he spent his meal time both eating and reading.
Once he started to read Emerson in 1854, Whitman couldn’t stop. He read nothing but Emerson that year. In “Nature” Emerson explains the foundation of Transcendentalism: that the “divine” is not a deity, but rather the oneness of a person with his or her physical surroundings – the natural world. These essays galvanized Whitman and the poetry poured out of him. Taking a leaf out of Thoreau’s experience with self-reliance, Whitman, too, set out to be self-reliant. He set the type of Leaves of Grass himself and paid for the publication of all 750 copies of the first edition, which he introduced to the world on July 4, 1855. Later Whitman told novelist John Townsend Trowbridge that Emerson’s essays helped him “come to himself” and “find himself.” As Whitman summarized it: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, and Emerson brought me to a boil.”
Even though Whitman didn’t put his name on the cover of his book, he did name himself within the poems as “Walt Whitman” describing himself as “rough . . . disorderly . . . fleshy and sensual . . . no stander above men or women or apart from them.”
And he sent a copy of his book to Emerson.
Upon reading Leaves of Grass, Emerson praised it, writing to Whitman: “I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. . . . I give you joy of your free and brave thought. . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson encouraged others to read it. The book was admired by well-known figures such as Amos Bronson Alcott: educator, reformer, and father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. Horace Greeley, publisher and editor of the New-York Tribune admired Leaves of Grass, as did that most self-reliant of Transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau.
But the book was judged obscene by many because of its focus on the body, sensual pleasures, and sex, and for its irreverence toward and disrespect of organized religion:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
Perhaps even worse for the self-appointed keepers of morality was the fact that Whitman did not merely celebrate himself and his own sensuality: he urged others to do the same. That invitation is extended in the first three lines of “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
For those who were not convinced of original sin or perhaps even of a mystical deity, Leaves of Grass must have come as a torrent of rushing, sparkling, life-giving water, telling readers that the body is not sinful, that sex is joyful, that love is to be celebrated in all its forms by both women and men.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
To write about these topics in this manner in 1855 was, to say the least, bold and defiant. Whitman’s epic of the vast sprawl that was the United States, with its different classes and colors and occupations, grabbed the imagination and heart of many. The first edition of Leaves of Grass sold out and Whitman printed another. In fact, he spent his entire life rewriting and revising the poems in Leaves of Grass, publishing new editions of his seminal work. What started out as a small book of fewer than twenty poems grew to a book of 200 poems and, at the end of Whitman’s life, to a book of almost 400 poems.
Conventional poetry of that time dealt with heroes elevated above the masses, but in Leaves of Grass it is the masses who are the heroes of Whitman’s vision of democracy. In “Song of Myself” he assumed a persona and spoke through it, for it, and with it. This was the persona of the people: common people, laborers and farmers. They, and not the “elevated” of money and social standing, were the center of his life and consciousness. His poems are, above all, about the oneness of human kind:
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
With his persona Whitman used slang and common phrases, much as popular music such as rock and rap use the vernacular, so full of sparkle and life, rather than stylized language.
In 1868 Leaves of Grass was published in Britain thanks to the influence of writer and critic William Michael Rossetti. That edition (an expurgated one) helped Whitman gain popularity there.
The lines of Leaves of Grass, so radically new in 1855, continue to awe readers today. They have to them a majestic sweep – a headlong rush forward, full of observation and enthusiasm, as endless as the sea and as wide as the sky. These lines rolled across the consciousness of those who read them. It felt as if Whitman was so full of life and the love of life that he was barely able to say all that he wanted to say.
The long lines, with repetition and ellipses and almost euphoria, must have seemed, to some readers of the day, uncontrolled. Defiant. Confident. Certainly sensual and erotic. It’s no wonder that Whitman published the book himself, using the art and skills he had acquired through a lifetime of work. He must have known it would be an exercise in futility to get a traditional publisher of the day to accept his work.
Impact of Civil War
As Whitman was writing and rewriting Leaves of Grass, the US was moving inexorably toward a civil war over the issue of slavery. England had outlawed slavery in 1833, France in 1848. But the slave system was so profitable to southern plantation owners, and the human laborers so expendable, and racism so deeply ingrained as a defense of slavery, that the slavery question could not be “settled.” The Southern aristocracy would not give it up, and Northern politicians overwhelmingly supported allowing slavery in half the nation. But the growing northern capitalist class became more and more opposed to slavery because they could not compete with it economically. Farmers and the working class also began to take stronger stands against slavery, which drove down wages and worsened working conditions for all. After Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, eleven Southern states seceded from the Union. In 1861 South Carolina fired on the federal Fort Sumner, thus starting the Civil War.
Whitman fully supported the Union during the war. Although his family grew up with Quaker leanings (Whitman Sr was a Quaker who opposed organized religion), that did not stop his brother George from enlisting in the Union Army. In 1862 Whitman received news that George had been wounded. He walked from New York to Washington to find his brother. (All his life, Whitman was a great walker.) When Whitman found him, his brother’s minor wounds had healed and George went back to his unit.
Whitman, however, was horrified by and deeply empathetic to the suffering he saw in the military hospitals, where three out of every four operations was an amputation, where soldiers died of typhus and dysentery more than of battle wounds. Whitman immediately decided to stay in Washington and somehow or other help the suffering young men in military hospitals. A friend procured him a poorly-paid government job working in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. On his walks to and from work, early in the morning, on his lunch hour, and in the evenings, Whitman visited different tents of wounded soldiers. He treated each soldier as an individual, spending time reading to each, or writing a letter home for the soldier, or playing cards or even Twenty Questions. Each evening he would stuff his haversack full of small treats, spending his own pay and begging donations from others. Laden with biscuits, jam, writing paper, pens, stamps, and other items, Whitman would walk into a military hospital tent and speak to each soldier, presenting him with a gift. He kept lists of what each soldier had asked for or what he judged would help them, as in “Bed 71: an orange.”
These acts of love and kindness took a tremendous toll. The Whitman of 1865 was not the same robust, healthy man as the Whitman of 1861. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom he admired greatly, took a further toll on the poet. Out of his great sorrow came many poems, among them the poems collected in Drum-Taps and “O Captain, My Captain,” one of the few rhymed and metered poems Whitman ever wrote.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
This was the only one of Whitman’s poems published in anthologies during his lifetime, and it is still taught in US schools today.
‘Depravity’ of capitalist class
The sprawling democracy that Whitman envisioned, the oneness of humankind – these did not emerge from the Civil War. Instead, what came forth was a horrific and rapacious growth of capitalism: large-scale agriculture that drove down prices and impoverished or destroyed small farmers; steel mills with no regard for worker safety or a living wage; child labor; the growth of the oil industry; the growth of the railroad barons at the price of small farmers; westward expansion and continued genocide against Native Americans. In 1871 Whitman published a book, Democratic Vistas, in which he wrote:
“The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration: and the judiciary is tainted. . . . In vain do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal, outvying the antique, beyond Alexander’s, beyond the proudest sway of Rome.”
In 1873 Whitman suffered a stroke, and from then until his death his health declined. He moved to Camden, New Jersey, to live near his brother George’s family. Though bedridden for years, and in great pain much of his later years, Whitman continued to work on Leaves of Grass until, in 1891, he published the final version, claiming it had taken him 33 years to get it right. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, and is buried in a granite mausoleum in Camden. He designed the crypt himself and visited it several times before his death.
During his lifetime Whitman faced fierce criticism of the sexual celebrations within Leaves of Grass. When the 1855 edition was published, poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his copy into the fire. The Saturday Review Press advised Whitman to commit suicide. The Criterion called him a filthy free lover and accused him of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians” (Whitman is considered to have been either gay or bisexual). None of this deterred Whitman from doing what he believed in, nor did it in any way diminish his pride in what he had written. Working one of his several low-paying government jobs in Washington, Whitman proudly placed a copy of the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass on the desk of his boss – and was promptly fired.
Whitman’s continuing impact
After Whitman’s death, his poetry lived. Today he is known around the world, and Leaves of Grass is published in almost all countries. Whitman’s influence is pervasive and profound, and it’s difficult to believe that any modern free verse poet has not, in some way, been influenced by Walt Whitman. His influence extends beyond poetry. Bram Stoker said that Dracula was influenced by Whitman. Ray Bradbury titled an episode of The Twilight Zone after one of Whitman’s best-known poems, “I Sing the Body Electric.” And then Bradbury gave the same title to an entire collection of short stories. Various musicians have titled albums after the same poem.
Many of Whitman’s later poems, such as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” are praised as very complex pieces full of strophe and antistrophe, dense with symbolism.
For his embracing of life in all its complexity; for his embracing the lives of working people; for his dominant lines which he refused to curtail; for his helping to shape American literature – Walt Whitman is second to none, his poetry read and valued by each new generation.
Barbara’s books include Women at Play: the story of women in baseball; the novel She’s on First; the poetry collection Crossing the Skyway; the mystery novel Dirty Proof; plus Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel; children’s books; and, most recently, young adult fiction.